Friday, May 30, 2008
Open for Business
Sports Illustrated has the “cover curse.” Here at the Service Course, we have the “blog blessing.”
A pattern seems to be developing, whereby if I poke a little fun at a rider, he will stand on the top step of the podium in a matter of days. Make a few snide comments about Spanish classics riders, and Oscar Freire (Rabobank) wins Gent-Wevelgem. Imply that mighty Jens Voigt (CSC) is a little girly man, and he takes out a gutsy Giro stage win a couple of days later. And sure, Mark Cavendish (High Road), who I may or may not have accused of being the heir to David Millar’s whiney-limey throne, tried to ruin my streak by gifting a sure stage win to teammate André Greipel, but I’m counting that one anyway. I can only do so much for the guy – if he wants to throw the fruits of my largesse back in my face like that, it’s his business.
Based on this scientifically peer-reviewed and undeniable correlation, hang on to your goofy backwards hats, Slipstream fans, because David Millar is about to bag a stage. Maybe the final TT? And congratulations Gilberto Simoni, you’re about to win your third Giro d’Italia.
I know the media is supposed to be unbiased, but to hell with that. As of this post, I’ll be accepting payments from any riders who wish to be made fun of on this site in the name of securing a victory in short order. Prices will correspond to the magnitude of the victory desired. A win at this weekend’s CSC Invitational criterium will be relatively affordable, even for a domestic pro. Obviously, a Giro di Lombardia win will cost a healthy bit more. Just shoot me a line though, I’m willing to negotiate.
On that note, I’ll be doing some coverage work at the CSC Invitational this weekend in Arlington, VA. Say hello if you make it out there, which I recommend doing if you’re in the vicinity – it’s always a good time, and there are some interesting names on the start list. Otherwise, enjoy the finale of the Giro, and after you have, check out Joe Lindsey’s feelings on the race. I don’t necessarily agree with all of his points, but he’s a voice that warrants substantial consideration. He takes a good look at some of the unfortunate issues that are surrounding the sport these days, subjectively as well as from a straight governance standpoint.
Tuesday, May 27, 2008
David Millar is Contagious
Winning clean in Europe? Taking a second division team to grand tour success? Making the hipsterized dandy look all the rage in director sportif fashion? No, these are not the criteria by which the success or failure of Slipstream-Chipotle director Jonathan Vaughters will be measured. Rather, his impact will be defined by whether he can break David Millar of being such a whining sissy-boy.
With two straight days in the Dolomites followed by an uphill time-trial on the unpaved Plan de Corones climb, you could almost feel Millar’s dyspeptic ramblings approaching from a distance, like a looming thunderstorm or a slow-moving sneeze. The anticipation was palpable. So when VeloNews’s Andrew Hood sidled up to the tall Scot after the TT stage, he had to know he was about to hit paydirt. And he did, according to his article:
“This race is just insane!” said Slipstream’s David Millar as he climbed into a cable car to take him down the mountain. “Taken individually it’s a good idea, but on a total, it’s not a good thing after the two mental days we’ve just had and the two hard weeks we’ve had before that. This race is just ridiculous.”
Maybe it’s unfair to pick on Millar. If the press are looking for an overdramatic quote to emphasize how hard a stage is, they know damn well who to go to. It’s the press that opens the door; who can blame Millar for throwing a bicycle through it? Well, I can, because it’s so predictable and so frequent and because he’s getting a little old to play the role of the brash Brit upstart who whines about everything. I’m not sure Millar has heard, but Mark Cavendish (High Road) has assumed that mantle, and he’s doing a damn fine job of it.
I suppose Millar should be further exonerated by the fact that many other Giro riders are reportedly whining about the difficulty of the stage. But to that I’d add that this is Italy, with a largely Italian peloton, so finding someone to gesticulate wildly and complain ain’t exactly backbreaking work. Asking an Italian if the stage is hard is like asking Gilberto Simoni if the world is out to get him. Of course it is.
So what’s a reporter to do to get the real story? Well, to try to get some balance, why not talk to legendary tough guy Jens Voigt? Surely the veteran German will slide seamlessly into the old Udo Bolts role, telling the peloton to “suffer, you sow!” just as Bolts did to a young and whiney Jan Ullrich. But after years of gaining a reputation (and legions of fans) as a hardman and long-break specialist, it seems Voigt’s ovaries are finally starting to hurt. As told to Hood:
“It’s a stupid race - I don’t like it! We are at a ski area! Leave it to the mountain bikers!” said an angry Voigt. “I don't want to sound like an old grand-mother, because I know cycling is hard. But this Giro is too much. It’s like a machine that missing some oil and needs a tune-up. With a few small details, it would be so sweet. But today, for 45 minutes of racing, I have to miss an entire day. And tomorrow is four-hour transfer. Where is the time for recovery?”
That’s a lot of material, so let’s parse it out a bit.
“We are at a ski area.” A ski area? No shit!? What will those crazy Italians think of next? I mean, what respectable race would run a mountain stage to a ski station like Plan de Corones? Or Sestriere? Or Alpe d’ Huez? Or Superbagneres? Or La Mongie? Or Ax 3 Domaines? Or Plateau de Beille? Or Courchevel? Yeah, that’s mountain biker crap alright, and best left with the fat tire set, if you ask me.
“But today, for 45 minutes of racing, I have to miss an entire day.” Miss an entire day of what? Vacation? Yardwork? Time at the office filling out TPR reports? Hey Jens, missing a whole day for a 45 minute time trial, a road race over 5 mountian passes, or even a crappy criterium in some godforsaken backwater burg is your job. It’s what you’re supposed to plan on doing the entire day.
Yeah, yeah, yeah, angry Jens fans, what he means is he’s missing time for recovery. Says it right in the last sentence of the quote, and don’t think I missed it. To answer Voigt's question about time for recovery, let’s have a look at this handy schedule. Today, the very day after Plan de Corones, is apparently reserved for "riposo," or some such nonsense. Yes, a rest day, just like the one last week, which makes a grand total of two, just like the Tour de France. Yes, there’s a four-hour transfer, just like there is on some Tour rest days, or at the Vuelta. No, driving four hours isn’t a great way to recover, that is if you’re actually driving or are stacked 3 wide in the back seat of your clubmate’s 1987 Honda hatchback. But here’s a tip for the ProTour boys: don’t let the soigneurs talk you into driving - it's their job, and the clever wretches are just trying to pawn it off on you. Ride in the team bus. It’s nicer than most of the hotel rooms you stay in anyway – air conditioning, recliners, a TV, and probably an espresso maker. Sure, there are fewer opportunities to shop for brightly colored athletic shoes and casual sunglasses on the bus than in town, but we all have to suffer for our art, whatever our art happens to be.
Am I denying that this Giro seems to have some pretty apparent problems? No. And Voigt’s little rant does include some veiled compliments and a certain objectivity that befits his senior status in the peloton. The well-documented transfer difficulties (particularly between Sicily and the mainland) are ridiculous, and better planning and execution in a number of areas are certainly called for. As he said, a bit of oil and you’d have a beautiful race for the riders, as well as for the fans, who seem to be enjoying it quite a bit.
As it is, the Giro is a little less slick, less mechanized than an ASO production, but that’s part of what creates a different and more engaging feel to the racing at the Giro. One that's less sanitized and closer to the tifosi. Unfortunately, that same earthiness shines through in some other aspects, like how long it takes to get riders away from the finish and on to dinner and a massage. Those things can sound trivial to those of us who have to cook our own dinners and almost never get a massage, but they are important at this level of bike racing, and organizers have to factor them in if everyone’s going to stay happy. On the other hand, the Giro awards actual cycling jerseys on the podium, not the ridiculously baggy, zipper-up-the-back evening gowns the Tour seems to have taken a shine to, and that’s worth a lot of hassle for the riders in my book. That’s details though, and there’s no arguing that, beneath the veneer of the mid-pack-amateur-esque post-race complaining, the distinguished gentleman from Germany has a point.
That said, some of the reason for the logistical rocky road this Giro is travelling is that the organizers are trying something different: they’re trying to make stage racing interesting again. Different stage formats, different climbs, and a less formulaic approach give this Giro a fresh feel (for spectators, at least), especially compared to the traditional grand tour role model, the Tour de France. Someone has to try to bring life back to a format where the principle tongue-wagger in recent years has been scandal rather than racing, and so far, it’s been the Vuelta (which debuted shorter stages several years ago) and the Giro that have stepped forward to give it a try. Meanwhile, ASO seems content to rearrange the ascents of the Telegraph, Galibier, and Marie Blanc each year and call it a new route. And will it be the Ventoux or Alpe d’Huez this year? Oh, the suspense. So if the Giro trying something a little different in the name of engaging spectators disrupts the flow a little bit for the insiders, maybe that’s worth it. Because without engaging those spectators, there won’t be anything for them to be inside of.
Anyways, maybe that Tour-like predictability is what Millar and Voigt want (who doesn’t like some stability in their workplace?) or maybe it isn’t; I have no idea. But you know what? Even though I've picked on Millar and Voigt for their comments after the Plan de Corones stage, I can forgive and forget the whinging. And I’d suggest that everyone else do so as well, at least until Millar has another relapse. I understand where they’re coming from, particularly when they’re just stepping off their bikes after a tough day like that. Some days my job is pretty unpleasant, and I certainly moan and complain about it when I get home. And yes, I even whine about the things that are well within the bounds of my job description. The difference is that right after I walk out of the office nobody asks me about my workday, except maybe my wife, and even then, she doesn’t record my answers and write a little article about it. Or maybe she does, and I just haven’t found the web site yet.
Labels: Giro d' Italia
Wednesday, May 21, 2008
Stuck Inside of Florence with the Giro Blues Again
Back in the very early days of 2006, my wife’s parents invited us to join them on a trip to Italy in May, along with one of my wife’s many sisters and her husband. Her parents would be renting an apartment in the center of Florence, and our room and board would be taken care of in exchange for services rendered as tour guides and travel planners. (We’d been to Florence on our honeymoon, and the two of us had long since proven our ability to travel internationally without major, life-ending, limb-rending incident. I guess that made us qualified.) After five days or so in Florence, everyone would go their separate ways – my wife and I headed to Bellagio on Lago di Como, her parents down to Rome, and her sister and husband back to Tennessee. Back then, when booking a flight gave you at least a 50-50 shot of getting to your destination, who would pass up that offer ?
Of course, you mention “May” and “Italy” to a cyclist, and their eyes roll back, their vision goes pink, and their mind jumps to thoughts of somehow working a couple of stages of the Giro d’ Italia into even the most family-oriented of itineraries. And I’m no different. What fun-loving spouse wouldn’t want to spend 8 hours sitting by the side of some godforsaken road to see 39 seconds of action? What 33-year-old wouldn't want some snack food thrown from a truck?
I tried, I really did. I studied calendars and routes, scrawled out revised itineraries and hatched plans for daring solo escapes by train. And I am not a person who enjoys planning. I knew my sainted wife would understand, if not enthuse, and if I played my cards right, I could even make it pay by writing a little something for one of the usual cycling media suspects. But I ran into one undeniable, immutable obstacle: the 2006 Giro d’ Italia, the Tour of Italy, would be spending its first days in Belgium during our stay in Italia. A little dejected, I sat back to begin the process of accepting a May trip to Italy that would not result in the obtainment of a pink T-shirt.
And then I remembered that graceful acceptance of defeat is not a part of cycling. If there’s one thing amateur racing teaches you, it’s that if you’re getting beaten, you just haven’t found the right category yet. With that in mind, I started looking for that different category that would allow an on-vacation hack like me to achieve victory. And like any one of a number of cut-rate Italian pros, I came to realize that even though I might never make it to Il Grande Giro, that was no reason to surrender my dreams. After all, there were still a slew of available races once you got that idea of bagging stage wins and GC glory out of your head. They’re just a little more…quaint.
In the end, I settled on the Giro della Toscana, a one-day Italian semi-classic that precedes the Giro d’ Italia start by a week and cuts through the heart of the Chianti wine country outside Florence. Still jetlagged and hazy on the day following our arrival, I drove to the start, got my press pass just as registration was shutting down, slapped the “Stampa” stickers on my rental car, and headed for the race’s biggest climb. What I found at the start, the finish, and at the top of the Badia Coltibuono was a race that will never, ever, ever be shown on Versus, but which was every bit as much a piece of the world of bike racing as a stage of the Giro d’ Italia. The result of that trip was the piece below. An edited version ran in VeloNews’s At the Back column in May 2006.
Il Piccolo Giro
If there’s one element that sums up the Giro della Toscana, it’s the publicity caravan. The little UCI 1.1 race through Tuscany’s Chianti wine region does have one, but there are none of the Giro d’Italia’s giant iced tea cups and motorized fiberglass contraptions. Instead, there’s a more reasonable fleet of four Fiat Punto hatchbacks, black, each fitted with a roof-mounted PA system. When the caravan reaches a group of spectators on the road – and a group could be defined as “five or more people” – a driver stops to deliver a brief promotional speech at top volume and maximum distortion, despite the proximity of his audience. Small green backpacks and umbrellas are then handed off to the newly deaf, and the Punto sets off for the next group of punters.
That’s the story of the Giro della Toscana, and a host of races like it across Europe each season. In many obvious ways—color, competition, sound—they’re very much like cycling’s major events, but just a little bit more modest, a little closer to the bone. The Giro della Toscana isn’t an important race anymore, though its list of 79 winners features the likes of Girardengo, Binda, Bartali, Coppi, Altig, DeVlaeminck, and Moser. These days, schedule conflicts with the Tour de Romandie and a slew of national races across Europe guarantee a field that is far from star-studded. But in an era defined by slickly marketed events with major sponsorship money at stake, Toscana feels refreshing for its lack of production values.
At the tiny start town of Terranuova-Bracciolini, it’s immediately apparent that this is no ProTour event, not “Il Grande Giro,” which is set to start in Belgium in a week’s time. The team area isn’t a maze of custom VanHool team buses, but rather a mish-mash of hastily parked team cars, with fans wandering between bumpers and bikes. The smaller Italian continental teams that make up the bulk of the field likely can’t afford much more, and Lampre and Liquigas’ rigs are up north at the big races. Only Acqua & Sapone and Naturino, medium-sized squads for whom these are the big races, have their wheeled homes on hand. The result is a start area that feels a bit more like the big races some 15 years ago, when even the most famous names had to greet their public and the press as the soigneur oiled their legs on the bumper of the team car rather than behind the curtains of the bus.
As for those famous names, there aren’t many here. The field is mostly solid Italian journeymen and a healthy complement of the Eastern Europeans that have continued to flock to Italian squads since the fall of the iron curtain. Dane Bo Hamburger plays the role of the old timer in decline, riding now for the modest Miche squad and a long way from his days of Fleche Wallonne and Tour de France stage wins. The lone bonafide star on the start list is Damiano Cunego, here for a final race ahead of the Giro d’Italia. In that great European cycling tradition of towns awarding riders they like with random things, he’s presented a matching pearl necklace and bracelet set at the sign-in.
Which is not to say that the other riders here lack their fans. In fact, they’re here in droves, but not because they’ve read about these riders in magazines or watched interviews with them on RAI. There are a healthy number of girlfriends and family members lingering, and plenty more familiar handshakes, slaps on the back from neighbors, and pokes in the ribs from amateur training partners. Those not personally connected aren’t here to see stars of world sport or be part of an event, they’re just here to see a bike race.
But maybe Toscana isn’t so different from the grander Giro after all, because any race that has RV people can’t be all that small. Granted, there’s only one RV rather than hundreds at the top of day’s principal obstacle, the twisting 20 kilometer climb of the Badio Coltibuono, but they’re there, and they’re cooking and drinking wine, waiting at the spot where they know the selection will be made.
On a signpost just beyond the RV crowd is evidence of the other way that Toscana directly channels the Giro d’ Italia—the route markers. They’re the same familiar black arrows on a Gazzetta-pink background—literally. A bit faded and battered from their use on last years Giro d’Italia, they’ve been efficiently spruced up with a red Giro della Toscana sticker to cover up their Giro d’ Italia markings. A few Euros saved, no doubt, and a few more to tack onto the day’s prize list.
The crowd on the Coltibuono grows steadily as the race approaches, eventually reaching some 40 or so, including the carabinieri, two nuns eating lunch in a Fiat, several families, and members of the Deux Chaveaux car club who have been trapped while trying to visit the monastery perched on top of the hill. A well-fed and painted blonde woman is working the crowd, singing the praises of local boy and 2003 Toscana winner Rinaldo Nocentini, “Vincitore del Giro dell’Appennino! Vincitore del Giro della Toscana!” She’s on the verge of explosion when her man comes over the top in a strong group of 25 that will decide the finish amongst themselves.
Nocentini is still in with a shot when the nine man remains of the break roll into Arezzo to complete two local laps before the finish, and the pace and the fervor of the crowd ratchets up as the candidates turn the screws for the win. The spectators, some familiar from the Coltibuono, grab their children’s heads and swivel them as they point out their local heroes in the peloton. In the peloton a minute down, Cunego makes his only mark on the race on the first circuit, throwing a theatrical arm up in futility and pulling out with a smile on his face.
With a just kilometer remaining and a downpour on the way, Przemyslaw Niemiec breaks free and holds off Giuliano Figueras and the rest of the break by a slim two seconds for the win. Though he’s not Italian, a result that’s somewhat of an aberration in the Toscana’s 79 year history, he’s still a popular winner. A Pole by birth, he rides for Miche, a squad based back at the start town of Terranuova, so he’s a nice local boy after all. Monday morning, his victory will only warrant about 300 words in the Gazzetta dello Sport, but for the people of Chianti, he’ll do just fine.
Labels: Giro d' Italia
Thursday, May 15, 2008
Ace of Spades
You know I'm born to lose,
and gambling's for fools,
But that's the way I like it baby,
I don't wanna live forever
- Ace of Spades, Motorhead
They’re known in some cycling circles as headbangers, those lords of the long break, the kings of kilometer zero, so maybe it’s fitting that Lemmy and the lads recorded the anthem that seems to speak for them so well. That the fatalistic lyrics of a blue-collar British metal band could fit a bunch of skinny, shaved-legged professional athletes so well seems odd, but when you stare at it for long enough, the reason they do becomes more clear. Like many of the down-and-out fans that song was aimed at, riders in the early break are often the cannon fodder of their own dirty little corner of the world, and that situation tends to change your perspective on risk a bit.
Of course, being cannon fodder, cycling or otherwise, doesn’t necessarily mean you have no purpose – as unkind teachers often point out, the world needs ditch diggers, too. Cycling teams don’t need shovelers per se, but they do need a sacrificial lamb to save the rest of the team from chasing, to bridge up to when the heavy climbs start, and to fly the flag at the front when those TV cameras click on with 2 hours to go. Hence, the long move.
Sometimes, initiating or covering that move is just an assignment, a good teammate’s given role for the day. Might be the same thing tomorrow, might be different. Whatever the DS says. But for some riders, going away in the first 40 kilometers becomes a specialty, every bit as much as climbing or sprinting. Unlike those more glamorous skills, though, the long raid rarely brings it's practitioners victory, and usually the only real suspense in watching it comes from the ghoulish delight of trying to predict just how the break will meet its demise. Will cooperation fail as the finish creeps closer? Will they succumb to a chase, or just crumble under the weight of a hundred kilometers of fatigue? Will they go quietly, or struggle on awkwardly until the field rushes past and spits them out the back? Will defeat come with 5 kilometers remaining, or right on the line?
Regardless of how or when, it’s fairly certain that defeat will come. So why keep doing it? What’s the motivation? That’s where the true breakaway specialists distinguish themselves from their obedient coworkers and snuggle over towards the compulsive gambler end of the spectrum. They keep doing it not because they think victory is likely, but simply because they know it’s possible. There’s a chance, however minute, despite team radios and perfectly timed chases and GC battles and odds. For them, that’s enough.
And like the poker players and slot jockeys that haunt Atlantic City and Vegas, they know the big payoff is possible because they’ve seen it done. Jacky Durand, probably the sport’s best known headbanger, made a career out of it after parlaying an early move (at 42 kilometers) into victory at the 1992 Tour of Flanders. That little taste was enough to hook the Frenchman, and for the next 12 years, you could mark the point where the neutral zone ended by when Du-Du made his move. Durand is a legend, but if the headbangers have a patron saint, it’s Eros Poli, the Italian leadout man who, at 6’4” and 180+ pounds used a 170 kilometer solo escape to score an unlikely win on Stage 15 of the 1994 Tour de France, which passed over the fearsome Mont Ventoux. He got to the bottom of the Giant of Provence with 22 minutes in hand, and was still over three minutes to the good when he plowed across the line in Carpentras ahead of Virenque and Pantani. There are actual saints who’ve suffered less.
While Poli and Durand are gone from the peloton, a new generation of gamblers is sitting down at the table, hoping that if they play enough hands, they’ll get dealt the right cards eventually. One of the best is Pavel Brutt (Tinkoff), a 25-year-old Russian who seems to be in the early move of practically every race his second division team gets an invitation to. All those kilometers off the front haven’t provided Brutt with even the slightest hint of a tan, giving him even more common ground with British metalheads we started out with, but they did gain him a good win on Stage 5 the Giro d’ Italia on Wednesday. He out-rode and out-bluffed the rest of the 12 man move he’d been away with for almost 180 kilometers. You can read all about it here, but that's old news by now and besides, another early move has already managed to reshape the race since then. What’s more important about the Stage 5 article than nitty gritty race details are Brutt’s comments from the post-race press conference, which provide some good insight into the mindset of a pure, unadulterated headbanger:
“I didn’t believe we’d make it to the finish, but then I was with some very strong guys and it made the difference to pull clear. I like to go into breakaways. That’s my best chance and I’ve done a lot of them. I do that as often as possible.”
Brutt knows that, without a killer sprint or serious high-mountain chops, his odds of bagging stage wins are slim, so he plays the cards he dealt and gambles on the long move. He knows that 99 percent of the time, he’s not going to win, and he’ll be wasted for the next few days. But because a 1 percent chance is better than nothing, he does it anyway. Frequently and wholeheartedly. And there's something endearing in that. After all, who wants to live forever?
Labels: Giro d' Italia
Monday, May 12, 2008
The 2008 Giro d’ Italia is underway, marking not only the start of the grand tour season, but also the beginning of prime road graffiti season. For whatever reason, this quaint chalk-and-housepaint element of road racing culture has never migrated north to the spring classics in a big way, save the sterile, municipally-stenciled string of “Huy”s on the final climb of the Fleche Wallonne and the surprisingly prolific writings of the Phil Gilbert fan club on the climbs just outside of Liege. Yes, the pavement décor is a little sparse up north in the chilly early spring, but as the professional caravan motors south to the boot of Europe for the Giro, the blossoming of the graffiti marks another sure sign of seasonal transition.
The Italians have made an art out of road graffiti, just like they have made an art of clothing, automobiles, living, bicycle racing, and, well, art. From simple block-letter names to heartfelt scrawlings to carefully planned and proportioned works, and with sentiments ranging from the poetic to the profane, Italians lead the way in truly inspired race course paint. (In fact, maybe it’s the descendants of all of the immigrant Italian miners in the Belgian Ardennes who account for the street painting present in those classics but lacking in the Flemish races. Maybe the urge to roll paint onto asphalt is something in their blood that hasn’t been totally bred out by living in that French-speaking land for a hundred years. Or maybe paint just doesn’t stick to wet cobbles very well.)
Sure, in July the Tour de France will bring about grand and international gestures of support for riders, teams, or entire nationalities, played out in paint and chalk, banners and flags, and paper mache and hay bale sculptures. But like the Tour de France and nearly everything associated with it, those displays often go a bit too far in their quest to be a spectacle for spectacle’s sake. And as a result, any sentiment they’re intended to convey seems to ring a bit hollow.
The Giro d’ Italia, on the other hand, is certainly a spectacle, but it is a spectacle because of its focus on bicycle racing, not because it is achingly desperate to be the center of attention. The same applies to those messages to nobody and everybody that the race’s tifosi apply to the streets of Tuscan towns and high alpine passes. Like the Giro that inspires it, the beauty of its road graffiti lies in its relative simplicity, its authenticity.
In fact, so endearing are the roadway decorations of the tifosi that they’re apparently spreading beyond the realm of cycling and making their way into general Italian culture, as American ex-pat writer and photographer James Martin describes here. It's like a bizarre ode to simplicity: some people use instant messages, the Italians just paint it on the road.
Tuesday, May 06, 2008
Every April, the cycling press unleashes a slew of Paris-Roubaix tech articles in a barrage so heavy, so relentless, it makes the shelling that northern France received during World War I look like a passing shower. These articles became all the rage in the early 1990s, when pro teams got the wild hair to start throwing mountain bike parts on their rigs for a few days a year in search of some relief from the cobbles. Apparently, deep down, even the most effete Euro-pro in the disco had a soft spot in his heart for purple anodized, CNC machined parts. And RockShox.
Things have calmed down a bit equipment-wise since those heady days, but the relentless pounding of tech articles from Roubaix hasn’t slowed a bit. And that’s OK. They discuss an always-interesting mix of new technology, like making a carbon fiber bike that’s a centimeter longer with a higher rake carbon fork to smooth out the ride, and old tried-and-true technology, like making a bike that’s a centimeter longer with a higher rake fork to smooth out the ride. Hey, wait a minute…
Despite the plethora of articles meticulously detailing longer bikes, brand new forms of Zertz-No-More-Hurtz-Insertz, tied-and-soldered wheels, and hand-made tubulars aged with more care than vintage Bordeaux, it seems to me that while they fawn over the more high-profile modifications, most amateur racers overlook the one little Paris-Roubaix tweak that could actually make a significant difference in their own racing.
Probably because it costs about $16, required virtually no “R&D time,” and doesn’t have that sepia-toned, Rapha-catalog charm of beekeeper’s wire and a soldering iron.
So what is this divine secret of the Hell of the North? And why bring it up now, some weeks after closing the book on that event? Well, racing-wise, this past weekend wasn’t just the Tour of Romandie. In the MABRA zone, it was time for the local incarnation of that annual mainstay of amateur racing circuits nationwide: the race with a token stretch of rough, potholed gravel road. It’s a nice course all around, and we give the organizing club a lot of credit not just for a great course, but also for steadfastly resisting the urge to put “Roubaix” in the name. Because that’s lame. Anyway, as the race’s numerous tales of glory have circulated via the Internet (which is now apparently about 20% cycling, 78% pornography, and 2% other) and group ride chit-chat, a single common theme has emerged: racers’ fundamental inability to keep their water bottles attached to their bicycles when the road gets rough.
Numerous tales of woe – of desperation, dehydration, and surrender – resulted from this malady. As did inspiring stories of redemption, the kindness of strangers, the brotherhood of the road, and angelic saviors in the feed zone. I’d imagine similar recounts haunt every district to have such a race, but really, it’s all kind of unnecessary.
The solution, as we hinted above, is simple, and cheap. Cheap enough that you, too, can live like a pro, hoarding a special technology in your service course until that one time per year you break it out for that special race. You can even take pictures of it and write an article, if you want. Send it to cyclingnews.com, or VeloNews.com. They’ll eat it up.
Here’s how to do it: Go to almost any bike shop and buy two of the most inexpensive, bog standard stainless steel bottle cages you can find (no, not carbon, not resin, not aluminum, not scandium, not magnesium – Steel). They should run you maybe $10 a piece, or about $40 less per cage than the sexy carbon ones that sent your bottles into the woods on the first lap. Before mounting, squeeze the upper and lower portions of each cage together, far enough that the steel sets in the “farther closed” position when you let go. Now put them on your bike. Does the bottle feel tight? If not, take them off and bend them farther until it is. If you go too far, bend it back the other way. And if you want to be really obsessive, wrap the top part of the cage with a few turns of hockey tape for grip. Then put them back on the bike. I can’t stress enough how important that last step is.
Done properly, your bottle should stay put as much as you’d want, unless you do something ridiculous that you shouldn’t really be doing anyway, like falling over or running broadside into livestock. The tradeoff, of course, is that it’s a little harder to get the bottles in, but compared to riding in the dust and heat with no water, that’s the least of your problems. Sure, keeping your water bottles for the whole race might take a certain element of drama out of your race report, and the steel (and the water bottle) will add those couple of grams to your bike for those rollers just after the gravel. But on the other hand, you might get a good result if you have something to drink, and you won’t become known as the peloton beggar.
So there you go, trickle down technology straight from Paris-Roubaix to you. It’s not glamorous or new, but it’s far more useful than overpriced tied and soldered wheels, far quicker and less smelly than gluing on special tires, and far less frustrating than trying to convince your girlfriend to stand beside a hot, dusty road in your ratty wind vest with a cooler full of water bottles. Pure, simple, and utilitarian. What could be more pro than that?
Friday, May 02, 2008
There was a time not so long ago when many cyclists wished on shooting stars that their beloved sport would become more mainstream, mostly for the TV coverage and so that they wouldn’t have to explain the leg shaving and lycra quite so often. It seems that now we’ve all been cursed by their selfish wishes. An ever-growing flock of write-by-numbers articles have been appearing in mainstream publications, heralding the arrival of cycling as “the new golf.” Just to be clear, by the “new golf” they don't mean that cycling is an engaging form of moderate exercise, but rather that it is an activity that allows well-off people to "network” when they should just “work” and on which they can spend boatloads of money for shiny equipment and executive trinkets.
Well, that’s just great.
Along with all of the other jackasserey that comes along with being the new golf, there are the inevitable follow-up articles about the stupid amounts of money people will spend on various aspects of the sport, be it on travel, engaging in Walter Mitty ride-alongs with the stars, or buying bicycles that cost more than Toyotas. These articles typically involve at least one comparison to a custom suit and/or a reference to Fifth Avenue, Rodeo Drive, or, for the more global thinkers, Milan.
So it’s not surprising to see the latest New York Times contribution to the genre, because nobody writes about pompous people buying shit for three-to-ten times what its worth like the Gray Lady. This latest round, irritatingly titled “Cycling Success Measured in Frequent Flyer Miles” focuses on people who travel absurd distances to buy their bicycles simply to get a buying experience that makes the Mercedes dealership seem like the DMV. Don’t get me wrong, people should spend their money on what they want, provided they actually have the money. If what they want is bike stuff, that’s good for the industry that I’m extremely peripherally involved in. And I certainly don’t subscribe to the popular notion that nice equipment needs to be somehow “earned.” But let’s not pretend the social posturing accompanying this alleged trend isn’t ridiculous.
To whit, the coverboy for this particular piece, Dr. Jason Newland, traveled from his home in suburban Kansas City, Kansas to Waitsfield, Vermont to buy his new Serotta at the Vermont Fit Werx (chapeau for the transparently BMW use of the “e” rather than an "o" in Werx - very Euro). Dr. Newland is shown proudly holding his new Legend Ti over his shoulder while sporting pleated khakis and a crisp starched shirt. Many crueler writers would make jokes about this pose being the primary use for this particular bicycle, but I’m not going to go down that path. In fact, I have a lot of empathy for Dr. Newland, a triathlete who set about his noble quest in order to get a bicycle more suitable for his sport(s) than the Cannondale road bike he had. You know, more aero.
So, 1,400 Gold Card airline miles and $7,000 (not including travel costs, as the NYT article carefully notes) later, what has he acquired in his search for speed against the clock? A road bike with aero bars. Not, mind you, a Serotta triathlon/tt bike. Not that object of aero-geek lust, the Cervelo P3 Carbon. Not some overpriced semi-exotic eye-candy Euro-pro time trial bike, like a Colnago, or Pinarello, or Wilier. Not even a run-of-the-mill swoopy carbon TT bike, like a Jamis.
A road bike with aero bars. And Ksyriums.
I’m sure the folks at VFW did a bang-up job with the bike fit and set him up at the bed and breakfast with the fluffiest pillows and best damn pancakes in Vermont, but I can’t help but wonder if VFW took a little bit of advantage of Herr Doktor. There’s a lot of value in a good fit, no doubt. But if Dr. Newland’s motivation was really to get a more aerodynamic bicycle, as described in the first paragraph of the article, then he could have gotten just as aero by hitting the closest decent shop in his local Kansas City area and dropping a modest few hundred dollars for some bars, barcons, and snazzy reverse levers for the Cannondale. Because other than the bars and possibly the fit, there’s not a whole lot about his new bike that screams aero or time trial. It says expensive, yes, but not aero, which makes it pretty clear what the real goal was. If he’d spent a bit more of that $7,000 (not including travel costs) in a bike shop instead of on Expedia, he could have also floated himself a set of wheels with an aerodynamic signature better than a Cuisinart. (I’m assuming if VFW set him up with some high-zoot aero wheels, they would have been in the photo. After all, if you don’t run your Corimas in the Style section, where do you use them?)
Of course, people who have worked in shops know that there are any number of factors that could have led to Dr. Newland getting the bicycle he did. These include personal fit considerations, the unbendable desires of the client, or the strong, inexplicable magnetism between doctors and ti-carbon Serottas. So it’s probably not fair to imply that VFW took him for the metaphorical kind of ride, rather than the touchy-feely one to “gauge his riding style and position.” And we all know that if you’re really looking to fleece someone, selling them an actual time trial bike is a damn good place to start, and VFW clearly resisted that urge. But the marketing bullshit from VFW and its brethren that made it into the NYT piece makes it hard to resist pinning it on them. Here’s a sample:
VFW: “It’s a bit of a concierge service here.” Not too bad on its own, but it follows a delightful anecdote about the staff sharing leftover pizza and wine with a customer during a scrumptiously rainy afternoon. One wonders what delicious romantic dalliances might have ensued.
Cadence: “[Customers] want to scratch all their itches.” This one was in reference to customers making the purchasing trip part of a broader vacation. It’s also a bit creepy, in that I’m pretty sure they’re implying that, in addition to providing excellent bicycle-related services, they could arrange for a hooker (no, TT nerds, not that Hooker). That’ll give you an itch you need to scratch all right, but I’m sure the on-call doctor they no doubt employ could write you a script for some cream that’ll clear it right up.
SBR Multisports: “The wife wants to shop on Fifth Avenue, and the gentleman wants to shop at SBR.” At last, there’s our Fifth Avenue reference. Bonus points for the butler/tailor/waiter usage of “the gentleman,” instead of the more proletarian “husband” that would usually correspond to “wife.”
Regardless of who’s to blame for Dr. Newland accidentally buying a $7,000 (not including travel costs) butchered road bike instead of the $7,000 (not including travel costs) triathlon bike he set out to buy, I can’t help but feel that the NYT is the real villain here. The whole article just seems cruel. As we all know, the NYT usually sticks to talking about its own battle-hardened New Yorkers when it comes to reveling in the excesses of conspicuous consumption. But this article is a departure from those usual celebrations of absurd spending, and an unsavory one at that, because it dwells upon the mal-spending of a well-meaning rube from Kansas, inviting us all to have a knowing chuckle at his considerable expense. They’ve searched out an earnest Midwesterner, a simple pediatric infectious disease physician, exposed his monetary de-pantsing for all the world to see, and supplemented the humiliation with ridiculous quotes and associated prose highlighting the jackassedness of the entire enterprise. That’s just wrong, and I won’t stand for it.